Guidelines to Composing
A renga is a series of short verses linked into one
long poem, composed collaboratively by a group. Nijuuin means a
The opening verse of renga is called hokku. It takes
the same form as haiku, three short lines, preferably with some
reference to the season of composition. It communicates feeling
through the use of concrete images, and generally avoids abstraction
and conceptualisation. Renga practice and haiku practice go hand
in hand. To learn haiku there is no substitute for practice. This
means, before writing, reading whatever you can, in translation
from the Japanese and original work in English.
A renga opens with some reference to the season of
composition and moves not necessarily in order of sequence
through all four seasons, generally ending with a spring verse.
Seasonal themes are generally sustained for at least a couple of
verses, and the passage from one season to the next is often broken
by one or more non-seasonal verses.
Seasonal reference is made through the use of season-word,
which may be obvious, like autumn rain or snow,
or more subtle, for instance, watermelon for summer. Season
words include cultural as well as natural references, for instance,
you might use April Fool's Day for spring.
The two key principles of renga are link and shift.
Link means that each verse should connect in some way with its immediate
predecessor. Shift means that, with the exception of the link just
noted, each verse should move on, drawing imagery which is new (for
that particular renga). That is, repetition is to be avoided. Even
when linking, although there will be some implicit connection, actual
words and phrases should not be repeated.
A nijuuin is divided into three phases 4, 12 and 4
verses respectively. As a beginner it is not necessary to have any
further knowledge of how these phrases relate; an understanding
will develop through experience.
Certain images are expected to appear in every renga.
In a nijuuin, a moon reference usually appears in the third verse,
and a flower reference in the penultimate verse (verse 19). The
theme of love should also appear somewhere, although it has no set
position, and is generally sustained for two or three verses.
The overall effect of a renga is a scattered mosaic
of images with changing episodes of atmosphere and mood. Although
narrative connection is one means of linking, there is no sustained
narrative or logical thread.
To take part in a renga, it isn't necessary to remember
all this. The template of seasons and images only exists to provide
a rough structure, anyway. It is important to follow the spirit
of the specific occasion, rather than be tied to the template. The
only two indispensable requirements are: respect the dynamic of
link and shift; and write the haiku like texture and economy.